The Best Seat in the House: a Restaurateur’s Rant
To celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, my husband and I went to Tuscany for two weeks. Before you start thinking, “wow, I should open a restaurant and make lots of money and vacation in Italy for two weeks too” or “geez, they must be charging us WAY too much for dinner”, let me just say that this was the first vacation that we had taken together, just the two of us. Sure, we take a few days as a family every winter to go skiing and a few days each summer visiting grandma at the cottage, but we hadn’t been on a holiday, just the two of us, since, well, never. In fact, my husband hadn’t been on a plane in almost 25 years; his old passport photo was of an almost unrecognizable teenager. What with university, law school, three children, two restaurants, a dog, a couple of cats, a mortgage, loan payments and a seemingly endless supply of contributions to the orthodontist’s Mercedes fund, we just never had the time, the opportunity or the money to get a haircut, never mind spend two weeks gallivanting about Europe. As far as my husband is concerned, a “holiday” is a five day work week rather than six; welcome to the restaurateur’s real world.
As you might imagine, our trip to Italy was kind of a big deal for us: where to stay, where to visit and, most importantly for us, where to eat and which wines to copiously consume with dinner. And, truth be told, with lunch. We flew to Italy economy class but, since we are both tall, I shelled out $100 each, each way, to sit in bulkhead seats so we would have extra legroom. Our seat numbers were printed clearly on our tickets: EC A4 and EC A5. There were three seats in our middle row, with two seats on the other side of the right aisle and two seats on the other side of the left aisle.
I sat in the middle seat, with my husband on my right. On my left sat the smelliest old lady I have ever had the misfortune of encountering. Her foul, sulfurous tang wafted haze-like around her, like the heat shimmer on a freshly tarred highway in Hell at high noon on the summer solstice; a stink as real and tangible as if it were her malodorous Siamese twin, and as deadly as mustard gas. I could feel my lungs blistering. Over the aisle, sat fetid grandma’s equally rancid daughter and grandchild. Just as I am about to pass out from the fumes, which seems like unnecessary practice for my imminent, inevitable and, quite frankly, welcome death, a flight attendant approached my husband and I asking for a “favour”. Would one of us mind moving to a different seat so that grandma, daughter and grandchild could sit together? Or we could both move to seats in a different section of the plane? So I say, “of course, we would be very happy to be bumped to the ionized, oxygen-enriched, lavender-scented and rarified biosphere that is business class so this family can be together”. “I’m afraid not”, says the flight attendant, “but I do have two seats together at the back of the plane”. I look to see where the proffered seats are located and am less than thrilled to discover that they are conveniently next to toilets that will be used by all manner of gaseous, vomitous and dipsomaniacal travellers and, as a bonus, that the seats cannot be reclined during the 8-½ hour red-eye flight to Rome. Talk about a rock and a hard place: instant death or slow, lingering torture likely ending in death.
“Um, no, “ I say, “we paid extra for these seats, it’s our 20th wedding anniversary and we have never been on a vacation together before. So, sorry, but you are going to have to ask someone else.” And then, under my breath (because I am running out of breath), I whisper to the flight attendant, “I don’t want to seem cruel or intolerant, but these folks reek. If you don’t move them somewhere else, and soon, I feel that I can safely predict that someone like me will have a mid-air asthma/panic attach necessitating a risky, late-night landing in a cornfield, followed very closely by a series of lawsuits from litigiously like-minded, asphyxiating passengers such as me.” The flight attendant responds, “I know. I’m so sorry. I’m gonna move them to the rear seats, I just wanted them to see that I asked.”
Did I feel guilty? No. If you can afford a plane ticket you can afford a bar of soap. If you are familiar with modern air travel as a means of getting from one place to another then you should be familiar with the ancient practice of bathing. I figured mom’s and grandma’s stank was a ploy in their scam to obtain premium seats for which I had, in fact, paid a premium. Besides, mom and grandma got to sit together anyway in the toilet-adjacent seats that had been offered to us. But every time I used that bathroom grandma gave me the filthiest and most malevolent glare that gave a whole meaning to the expression “stink eye”.
I don’t feel that I was being a prima donna. I had selected those specific seats months in advance from the airline’s seating chart and I had paid extra for them. We didn’t swan in, an hour before departure, making entreaties for premium seats. I knew the seat numbers, I knew the seats’ location, and I knew the risks and rewards I was entitled to expect: a thin blanket, a lumpy little pillow, $5 headphones, a watery cocktail in a plastic cup, a pallid and tepid chicken-ish meal, an assortment of B-list movies on a postage stamp screen, an unruly toddler kicking the back of my chair, stomach-churning turbulence just as I am falling asleep, and an extra few square centimetres of leg room. I had not factored an olfactory assault.
As in airplanes, every restaurant has accommodation that is objectively desirable. These tables are spacious, pleasingly-lit, well-positioned with a nice view or attractive sightlines, and thankfully situated far from swinging kitchen doors, staircases, toilets, speakers, AC units, grunting and squealing pipework, work stations (“bus stands”), the front door, the coat check, the incessant ringing of the telephone at the hostess stand, the buzzing and sputtering of bar and receipt printers, and so on. Unlike airplanes, however, when you make a reservation at a restaurant you are booking a table and a time, not a particular table. There is no business class or first class section of a restaurant, and no bulkhead table, and, consequently, no extra fee is required to be paid for a premium table. Sort of.
I seat customers at specific tables based upon a number of factors, most of which are entirely within a customer’s control, including: the number in the party, whether a reservation was made, the time of the reservation, when the reservation was made, the availability of tables at any given time, the workload of floor staff, etc. I also have regard to whether a regular customer has requested a specific table or a particular server. I will consider whether the party includes children, seniors, someone with a disability. In these cases, I will try to accommodate a party close to the bathrooms for the inevitable multiple trips to the toilet that children make, or in a quiet alcove where the acoustics or the light is better, or at the front of the restaurant so someone with a walker or crutches won’t be required to walk too far to their table or navigate a forest of legs and elbows. But, and here is where the “sort of” comes in: I also seat customers at specific tables based upon their personality.
It is a simple truth of human nature, at least my nature, that one wants to be nice to people who are nice. If you acknowledge me when you enter the restaurant, if you respond to my “good evening and how are you today” with a similar sentiment then, all things considered, I will want to give you my very best available table. If, however, you don’t look up from your cellphone and you respond to my welcome with “reservation for Smith” then I will conclude that you are inattentive, dismissive, rude and otherwise unsavoury. You will be seated in restaurant Siberia, and I may decide to make you wait a few extra minutes for the privilege.
You aren’t required to spend extra for a premium table at a restaurant like you would for a premium seat on an airplane. You don’t have to be a cherished regular customer to obtain the optimal table. You don’t need to have a history of spending vast sums or leaving extravagant tips. For the most part, you simply need to be pleasant, appreciative, responsive, attentive, civil and, of course, familiar with basic hygiene.